DOJ puts Arroyo travel on hold: It’s not just a medical issue
“This is more than just a medical issue,” Justice Secretary Leila de Lima Thursday said to explain why she deferred her decision on the request of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her husband to seek medical treatment abroad.
Expressing apprehension that the couple might not return, De Lima said she had received information from “very reliable sources” that the Arroyos had other things in mind aside from seeing medical specialists for the former President’s bone ailment.
“We received certain information about the real agenda and the real intent of the former First Couple in leaving the country,” De Lima said in a news briefing. Asked to elaborate, she said she was still “validating the information.”
De Lima said she had required Arroyo to declare her complete itinerary and countries of destination, noting that the letters and travel orders that she had sent to her had “varying or shifting information.”
“Why am I asking these details and specifications? I think no one would dispute the fact that this is more than a medical issue,” De Lima said. “We are just balancing those contrasting interests—the individual rights as against the higher interests of the country.”
“I don’t have to say it categorically at this point,” she said. “My appeal to their camp is to come clean, to be very transparent. This is a major and important decision that this department, specifically the secretary of justice, will have to make.”
No immediate necessity
De Lima said Health Secretary Enrique Ona had furnished her a report of his visit to Arroyo on October 28. She said Ona told her that Arroyo had been “recuperating very well” from a series of spinal surgeries.
“It would appear from all indications … that (her) condition is improving. Therefore, there seems to be no immediate necessity at this point for us to grant the request,” De Lima said.
She said she would decide on Arroyo’s petition after her return from an Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) justice ministers’ conference in Cambodia on Monday.
“I need a few more days to further reflect on the issue at hand. I’d rather be criticized for some delay in my actions than be criticized because I made the wrong decision,” De Lima said.
Right to travel
Critics say that even if Arroyo is the most reviled President since the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, she still has the right to freedom of movement enshrined in the Constitution, restricted only on the basis of “national security, public safety, or public health.”
Legal eagles say that the limitation to the right to travel must be based on law and decided by the courts and not on a mere executive say-so.
Although accused of election sabotage and corruption, no case has been brought against Arroyo or her husband, Jose Miguel “Mike” Arroyo, in the courts. She has not been arrested or convicted of any crime.
As to the likelihood that the Arroyos would not return, De Lima said: “There’s always that possibility. There is that risk. That’s why it’s not an easy decision to make. Who would be blamed later? Can we afford that all of these proceedings are suspended because of her absence?” De Lima said.
“Remember that one cannot be tried in absentia if the accused has yet to be arraigned. Right now, we’re still in the preliminary investigation,” she added.
Spokespersons for Arroyo—her chief of staff Elena Bautista-Horn and lawyer Raul Lambino—said that De Lima’s statement Thursday indicated that the Aquino administration had no intention of allowing the couple to leave.
“Does she have to beg in order to leave? If that’s the case, then there’s no more democracy,” Horn said.
Arroyo, 66, is suffering from what doctors describe as cervical spondylosis, sometimes called neck arthritis, a degenerative condition of the cartilage and bones common to aging adults. This is caused by the chronic wearing away of the cervical spine, for which Arroyo underwent three surgeries between July and August.
Horn said the former President had to take 20 kinds of medicines every day and that her treatment depended ultimately on a bone biopsy. While conceding that the ailment was not life threatening, she said Arroyo was entitled to the best medical treatment available.
“We don’t know what will happen to the bones, that’s why we need a biopsy to assess,” Horn said.
Ona told reporters Thursday that bone biopsy was a simple procedure. “We have a lot of doctors here who can do this,” Ona said. However, he refused to give a direct answer when asked if there was a need for Arroyo to have this procedure done overseas.
The martyred Benigno Aquino, incarcerated for eight years, was given a prison furlough by the dictator Marcos to undergo a heart bypass in the United States in 1980, although this was being performed by local doctors in the country.
No extradition treaty
De Lima told reporters that countries Arroyo, now a Pampanga representative, intended to visit, such as Germany and Spain, have no extradition treaty with the Philippines.
When asked if the issue of an extradition treaty was a primary consideration in granting Arroyo’s request, she said: “It’s one of the important considerations.”
“But if her condition is really bad, why travel to several countries?” De Lima stressed. “Why Spain?” Told that it was close to Portugal, where the Arroyos had reportedly bought an estate, De Lima just smiled.